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Start-up Hopes to Be the ‘Weight Watchers of College Completion’

Behavioral nudges help people quit smoking, exercise, and vote. Can they help students finish college, too?

A start-up company is banking on just that hope, with a new service that directs nudges to the devices that students carry at all times: mobile phones.

The venture, Persistence Plus, bills itself as “the Weight Watchers of college completion.” It draws on behavioral research to deliver personalized messages to students through an iPhone app or text messages. Say, for example, a group of students has a forthcoming math test. The program will send messages to them asking when and where they plan to study for the exam, says Jill Frankfort, who co-founded the company in August 2011.

“Reminders don’t actually change behavior that much,” she explains. “But when you can help someone actually plan out their time and create a mental map of when they’re going to do a behavior, they’re more likely to do it.”

Persistence Plus also tries to help users persevere in the face of initial failure. A student might feel as if he doesn’t belong in college after getting a bad grade, Ms. Frankfort says. Her program tries to help students understand that such challenges are part of the typical college experience. It might point a floundering freshman to the story of another student who initially struggled to balance social and academic life. That strategy takes a page from a Stanford study that found improvements in the grades of African-American students when they were exposed to interventions aimed at increasing their sense of social belonging.

But will students engage with Persistence Plus? Ms. Frankfort says they are indeed responding, although Wired Campus wasn’t able to speak with any participants directly. The company’s agreements with the small number of institutions testing the technology prevent her from disclosing their identities, she says.

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